Bravehearts Of Bharat: Vignettes from Indian History. Vikram Sampath. India Viking. 2022. Pages 512. Price 655.
Indian history has always been a battle-ground. For a long time in the recent centuries, the chroniclers of India emerged from the invaders and aggressors. Following them, generations of historians emerged through the colonial system. A powerful, mass educational system under the control of colonial rulers taught that history to Indian students which suited the colonial interests.
The core of this narrative was that India had always been a defeated land, even before the invaders. The Empire, benign and compassionate, was here to civilise Indians.
As the freedom movement became stronger, the colonial narrative was challenged. Lost and forgotten heroes resurfaced in the collective memory of the nation to infuse them with patriotic fervour.
The heroes emerged from sacred literature and folk lore. Bharati of Tamil Nadu sang of the greatness of Guru Gobind Singh in Tamil. Tagore sang of Veer Shivaji. Swami Vivekananda spoke of the Rani of Jhansi.
Of course, Veer Savarkar with his book on the first war of Indian Independence challenged the British view of history in a determined manner. Later, his Hindu Pad Padsahahi became a reading material for Hindustan Socialist Republican Army leaders.
Then came independence.
Unfortunately, independent India created dynastic-elite rulers. The dynasty justified its own presence in a manner similar to the colonial rulers.
'Without us your innate defects would take over'.
'You are the nation of Hindu rate of growth'.
'The invaders civilised you. Now let the dynasty civilise and democratise you'.
In the post-colonial world, this narrative was sheathed in Marxist jargon.
Consequently, all other freedom fighters were marginalised if not their memories erased. When the Nehruvian narrative took over, even pre-British indigenous dynasties and heroes and heroines from various provinces of India were ignored.
Thus, Muhammad of Ghaznavi was turned into 'a great lover of art and a ruler who built libraries in his native land'. That was the fact to be admired and not the fact that thousands of unarmed ordinary Hindus sacrificed their lives for Somnath.
Chola temples were described but as centres of Brahmanical supremacy. If one goes through the NCERT history textbooks, one could almost hear the textbooks demanding the destruction of Hindu temples.
The fortress of this narrative was strong. Building it were historians like Romila Thapar and R S Sharma, Bipin Chandra and Irfan Habib. From that inner circle and the ecosystem associated with it, quite a lot of material had flown out – in the form of movies and novels, popular articles and Publication division books.
This long introduction is necessary to understand the importance of the book, Bravehearts of Bharat: Vignettes from Indian History (Penguin, 2022) by historian Dr. Vikram Sampath.
The book contains the histories of the lives of 16 great warriors of India.
Starting with Lalitaditya Muktapida of Kashmir to Begum Hazrat Mahal of Awadh, each chapter brings out a hero or heroine whom the dominant colonial-Nehruvian-Marxist historical narrative has chosen to forget.
Each of chapters is well researched and presented in an interesting flow. It contains the academic rigour but without the academic dryness. It keeps the racy flow through its course, without getting into sensationalist unhistorical fantasies.
The book is filled with amazing facts that the younger generation of Indians should know about their heritage.
Did you know that the illustrious and brave Kashmir king Lalitaditya traces his ancestry to the serpent Deity Karkotaka? Did you know that Lalitaditya inflicted a crushing defeat on the invading Arab armies and this victory was celebrated by the people of Kashmir every year – even four centuries after Lalitaditya?
In the twenty pages devoted to Rajaraja Chola and Rajendra Chola we come to know that Chola mariners ‘used a variety of instruments and objects for navigation – Ra-p-palagai for sighting stars), Tappu Palagai for speed measurements, flat bronze plates (for measurement of depth of water) and pigeons for sighting land.’
Rani of Gujarat, Naiki Devi inflicted a humiliating defeat on Muhammad Ghouri.
Dr. Sampath writes:
The unexpected massive rout that befell his army shattered Muhammad Ghori’s pride—more so since this defeat was wrought on him by a woman whom he had vastly underestimated. He fled from the battlefield with a handful of bodyguards to save his life.
Several local chroniclers through poetic works and ballads kept alive her memory. The author notes that even, ‘the Muslim chroniclers, too, have unabashedly mentioned the rout that the Ghorid forces faced unexpectedly in Gujarat.’
The irony should not be lost upon the readers. What the local memories held and even enemy chroniclers of Rani Naiki Devi recorded, the Nehruvian history had tried to remove.
It is amazing to know that the only independent queen whom the world traveller Marco Polo had written about and written with awe and respect was Rudrama Devi.
We also learn that while quelling the rebellion by hereditary aristocrats, she introduced ‘a novel concept of recruiting non-aristocratic warriors from different castes, as officers, chieftains and landowners’ replacing the ‘older feudal families’ and encouraging ‘new meritocratic officers.’
A queen had challenged birth-based social order and changed it. And she was sung and praised and preserved in the memories of the people. But the Nehruvian system just forgot her.
Of the 16 brave-hearts in the book seven are women. Of the seven women two are Muslims: Chand Bibi of Ahmed Nagar and Begum Hazrat Mahal of Awadh. The former became in the hands of Muslim social reformers of twentieth century a role model for Muslim girls to seek education, observes Dr. Sampath.
This reviewer personally feels that the achievements of such women rulers, so independent-minded, fiercely freedom-seeking martial warriors may be because of the Divine Feminine so strong in this land. Crossing the sectarian boundaries, the Divine Feminine perhaps asserts and lends strength to women who fight to become leaders of nation’s destiny.
The last chapter is on Begum of Awadh, one of the leaders of the 1857 uprising and it ends with a long passage of glowing tribute from none other than Veer Savarkar.
This is a book that takes heroism of all India to all India. Valour and patriotism are part of a grand matrix that permeate entire Bharat Varsha. No single ideology, and definite not a single family or a couple of names alone can claim monopoly to the freedom we have today.
The book shows how every province throughout every age has produced heroes and heroines who fought impressive battles against aggressors and did wonderful accomplishments for the people in a way that was far advanced for their time.
Every Indian, particularly youngsters should read this book. Like Uncle Pai in the previous generation for children, Dr Vikram Sampath is becoming the chronicler of the victorious and brave India for the youth of this generation.
This book is also a fitting tribute to the spirit and values of the Amrit Utsav of Indian Swarajya.
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